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Parashat Vaethanan

August 2, 2012

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen O Israel…” Moses recites these lines in this week’s Torah portion at the end of his life. For us, these are usually the first Hebrew words we learn, and we are taught to say them twice daily, morning and evening, on holidays, special occasions, and even before death. This affirmation emphasizes ‘listening’ as we declare that God is ONE. To whom are we making this declaration? And why emphasize listening?

Rabbi David Hartman, in his book A Living Covenant (1985, The Free Press, pp. 164-165)says that by saying the Sh’ma we are actually recreating the Sinai experience for ourselves – listening for that still small voice of God. We tune out the distractions of our world and focus on the question which Moses emphasized and that God asks us everyday: Are we ready to become a partner with God in this world, willing to commit to living a life guided by the ethical and ritual mitvzot given us in the Torah? Listening starts this process and requires a response on our part.

As we hear ourselves saying the words of the Sh’ma we also awaken to an awareness of who we are and what our relationship to God might be. Yet we are immediately confronted then by the idea that Adonai (The Lord) is also Eloheynu (Our God)- and is also Ehad (The One and Only God). In other words, from this very intimate personal relationship, we go to also acknowledging that we share God with others – the Jewish people first of all and the rest of the world as well. It is a breath-taking statement – and leads us back to listening in order to grasp this.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Between God and Man, p. 209) explains that the importance of listening in prayer to our words enables not just our individual souls but rather the spirit of the entire Jewish people to speak. We bring this forth through our mouths while simultaneously listening to what these words convey about our people’s relationship to God, traveling back and forth in time, in emotions, in hopes and dreams. Thus the Sh’ma symbolically unites us with Jews everywhere, in past, present and future, as Rabbi Morris Adler has said (May I Have A Word With You? p. 169).

But what about the idea that our God is the ONE for the entire world? It was the great philosopher and physician Maimonides who first said that this is a theological statement, that God is the Creator and Cause of all that exists. (Guide for the Perplexed, Vol. II, Chap.49). Through our belief then in One God, we are brought to realize that we are deeply connected to all other living beings and to the world itself.

It is not so hard for us to conceive of this in our days. Modern science and technology are able to instantly link us via phone, video and television with people around the globe; to show us planets and stars millions of miles away; to help us use gene therapy to cure diseases; and to even search for the “God-particle” of all energy and mass. With each of these experiences we are left in awe at the complexity, beauty, size, and logic of this world created by God – and experience this oneness in ever-expanding ways. Becoming truly aware of this breaks down all barriers between us and other people. And it reminds us that the laws which God has given us are the ones that will help us live in peace, be productive, and protect the gifts we have been given.

Looking at the Torah text of the Sh’ma, we notice the enlarged last letters of the first and last words – Ayin and Dallet –– creating the word “eid” – meaning “witness. Witnesses are those who have listened carefully and are ready to respond, to give testimony through their words and actions.  Thus, I see built into this verse of the Sh’ma is the idea that not only each individual but also the entire Jewish people, and even ALL people worldwide can be witnesses to God’s goodness, power, and uniqueness – and respond to the challenge of living by God’s laws.

May we listen carefully to the Voice of God in the universe as it speaks through each of us when we recite the timeless words of the Sh’ma.


Rabbi Dorit Edut (AJR ’06) heads The Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network and teaches at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.